Hot on the trail of the Wicklow woodpecker

Ten years ago you would have been very lucky to spot one in Ireland, but great spotted woodpeckers have now started nesting here, and their numbers are growing all the time

Great spotted woodpeckers: mother and father fly to the Sraghmore woods nest from different angles. “It’s a good strategy,” says Dick Coombes of BirdWatch Ireland. “They don’t shop in the same supermarket, as it were.” Photograph: Dick Coombes

Great spotted woodpeckers: mother and father fly to the Sraghmore woods nest from different angles. “It’s a good strategy,” says Dick Coombes of BirdWatch Ireland. “They don’t shop in the same supermarket, as it were.” Photograph: Dick Coombes

 

It’s a bright, blustery day in Co Wicklow as we wend through the pine trees at Sraghmore, near the Vartry reservoirs, in search of Ireland’s latest avian arrival, the great spotted woodpecker. Barely 100m from the road, 10m up the trunk of a completely dead Scots pine, is a perfectly circular hole, black against the pale, barkless tree.

We raise our binoculars, then set up the telescope. Peering down into the eyepiece, I suddenly spot movement inside the hole. An eye, clearly visible, then the silhouetted head of a young woodpecker, greyish black and white, with a red crown.

Every so often the head disappears for a few minutes, only to pop out of the hole again, as we wait to see whether the parents will come. The first to arrive is the female, recognisable because of the lack of red on her head, flying a straight line over our heads towards the nest. She lands on the dead pine, reaches into the hole and off- loads a beakful of grubs. With a few vertical hops to the left of the nest hole, and a brief cry, she’s off, flying once again in a straight line back towards her food source.

Dick Coombes, an old-hand ornithologist who is showing us around for the day, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little lapel pin of a great spotted woodpecker. “It’s to mark your initiation into Irish woodpeckers,” he says with a grin.

A short while later the male shows up, flying in from a different angle, as Coombes predicted: “It’s a good strategy. They don’t shop in the same supermarket, as it were.”

Clutching food – perhaps wood-boring larvae, crane fly and beetles – for his offspring, the male lands on a nearby tree and starts calling. “Pic, pic, pic, pic, pic, pic.” Generally, it’s the males who do most of the feeding, but this one appears to forget about nourishing his offspring and keeps on calling. Half an hour later he is still at it.

In the meantime the female makes multiple trips. “My little adage is that if” during the breeding season “a woodpecker flies twice in the same straight line there’s a nest at one end,” Coombes says.

That Ireland has any woodpecker nests is amazing. “Ten years ago this would have been unimaginable,” Coombes says. “We were used to looking forlornly at bird books, feeling hard done by the lack of any woodpeckers on Irish soil. It used to be the case that if you had three records in a winter this indicated an influx from Scandinavia, known as an irruption, when a food shortage drives the woodpeckers south and west.”

Breeding was confirmed in Co Down in 2007, according to the Irish Naturalists’ Journal. In April 2008 one showed up in Cape Clear; another appeared on the Great Saltee island a month later. In spring 2009 Coombes and a team of other birders spent a few hectic weeks confirming the suspicion that great spotted woodpeckers had started to breed in Wicklow woodlands.

Two schools of thought exist as to the origins of the newly breeding population, as described by researchers: “One is that the species arrived from Ireland’s nearest landmass, Britain, as the result of recent and rapid increases in the normally sedentary population there. Alternatively, the species could have arrived from Scandinavia.”

Genetic material gathered mainly from feathers from disused nests was tested in an international study led by Allan McDevitt, a geneticist; its other researchers included Coombes and Faith Wilson, both of BirdWatch Ireland. Ireland’s new arrivals were compared with those of great spotted woodpeckers found in Britain and mainland Europe. Although based on a small sample, they concluded that “Britain was the more likely source area of the Irish populations”.

The jury remains out about whether their arrival marks a return of the species to our shores. A reference to their being here previously is based on an unconfirmed archaeological finding, in 1906, of bones in a Co Clare cave. These were subsequently carbon-dated to the Bronze Age.

“But who’s to say these were bones of a resident woodpecker? It could have just been one that arrived during a winter irruption,” Coombes says. “I still persist – and a few of us do – that this is a colonisation, not a recolonisation.”

One thing is clear: it’s very hard to find a woodpecker nest. It took Coombes five visits to Sraghmore Woods to find the nest we are peering up at. “On average it takes three attempts to find a nest, about a day’s work in total,” he says. By the end of this year’s breeding season 34 nests had been found in Wicklow.

The vast majority of Irish nests have been in broadleaved trees; in the first year seven nests were found, six in oak and one in ash. But it appears they aren’t too fussy: alder, birch, beech, Spanish chestnut, eucalyptus, larch, spruce, pine and even an ESB pole have been used.

Coombes has ben spending his free time in the mature wooded valleys of Wicklow since April, checking the standing dead trees for holes and listening out for the woodpecker’s drumming and any alarm cries, which at this time of year are often just a single “pic”. Once they go into the incubation period the adults tend to become very quiet and secretive.

If Coombes finds a hole he pulls out a stone and a small piece of well-seasoned timber and uses a trick inspired by watching David Attenborough. He taps them together, mimicking the sound of a woodpecker’s drumming. “If there is a bird nesting, a head usually pops out, simply curious as to who is out there.”

It takes them about a month to make a nest, Coombes says; the bird books say they lay between three and seven eggs.

Homebodies

Once the young have flown their nest it’s virtually impossible to spot them, Coombes says, as they head to the treetops.

Out of the breeding season a well-hacked dead tree, with rows of small oval holes, each about a centimetre long, is a clue that woodpeckers are present.

Their drumming, a loud staccato of about 16 strikes per second, is undoubtedly the most endearing sign of their presence. It is purely display, Coombes says, the equivalent of singing a song, used by both males and females to mark out territory. “They always find something that resonates well.”

Drumming can be heard up to a kilometre away, and at any time of year, peaking between the end of February and the end of April. The sound of them chiselling out a nest hole, in contrast, is not very loud, more an irregular tapping.

In Sraghmore the red-headed juveniles continue to take turns sticking their heads out, their feet visible over the hole rim, waiting for their grub. They are close to flying the nest.

The next day Coombes reports that the male stops his rumpus and pulls his weight, feeding the young as often as their mother does. The chick at the hole is hanging his head and shoulders out and looking perky, a sure sign that flight is imminent. A day later all is silent. The great spotted woodpeckers have fledged.

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